No, YOU are the product

Remember when we were horrified at ”Das Leben der Anderen” and then all installed an Alexa at our home? Yeah…

Phelim Kine, a China Watcher with Politico, just published a piece on how transcription app started asking questions about a conversation he had with an Uyghur that fled a surveillance state. Out of the frying pan…

Well, don’t take my word how bad of a practice that is, I have a vested interest in the competition. What you can take my word for is how complicated it is to design a product with privacy embedded to it.

First of all modern A.I. -products are driven by data, and lots of those, especially computer vision and natural language tasks typically revel in data. Just borrowing that from your customer is eh, well eh, very eh, convenient. *insert it’s free real estate meme*

Not having your data automatically means that you’ll have to buy rent a proprietary model. If you want your service to be any good, that is. It also means that you can’t sell that data to other A.I. companies, or put it on balance sheet and pitch it to V.C.’s.

Other types of data, such as your behavior and identity (Plain old profiling, I don’t think that your profile is being harvested from audio, even though the rumors are plenty), are even more liquid and can be sold via ad networks.

For stenos we have implemented a quaint old business model that asks money from the user in exchange for value. All jokes aside: That has become a hard sell.

Another vulnerability for the well meaning startup is the cloud based data storage. Not storing any data of users is a pretty good way of avoiding leaking it. I know first hand that keeping user data is quite a responsibility, and peace of mind is a great thing. However, not having the data is also a hurdle, for instance when offering backups for your clients, or syncing that data between devices.

A third piece of this puzzle is the customer interaction. This dawned quite lately to me in this particular venture, even though this is not my first rodeo. Not having any customer data means not being able to e-mail your customers with reminders or questions, which can be vital to your learning curve and retention metrics.

To me personally it has been something of a hobby to minimize data requirements. I have been involved in quite a few projects involving data protection at RWS (the Dutch Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management). Most of these projects involved existing systems. Designing a system bottom up was very liberating for once. Most startups however will have to tackle these challenges an other way, as long as we don’t change the rules to game.

Bad business models are bad for you (and your data)

Information is a resource, and only one that increases when used. We are all familiar with the value of big data by now, and where institutions and governments are playing catch-up with Big Tech *insert current litigation against Big Tech*, it seems that grip on your personal information is still in its early days.

Between your smart watch, your search history, that note-taking app, and loads more,  the data on you is super rich. But you are not in control: the data is fragmented and the market incentives are against you. But what if they weren’t? How about that second brain that would remember every detail of where you were and what you discussed? Or that assistent that would regulate your personal fitness? And I’m sure there are many, many more possibilities.

I have personally experienced the benefits a good digital log: A Friend of mine could show that he wasn’t at demonstration that ended in irregularities years ago (with the help of shared calendars and a Flickr-account) and I (and who hasn’t at this point) have turned business negotiations with the help of an unending gmail-history. But we all know this goes both ways and it isn’t exactly an equal playing field.

And of course there are alot of people that turn a NAS into a personal data vault, or that get to work on their own version of Evernote. Sometimes I even hear rumours of people harvesting data as a modern day curio cabinet. Have I heard about people that tarballed a data leak at the Dutch Tax Authority? Rumours perhaps, evidence no. But that is all hobbyism, that is definitely gonna be bulldozed by the Googles of this world.

Another way of the world that stuck to me is that money enables growth, and the incentives are aligned properly yet. Open-source and hobbyism are nice, but why can’t personal data management be a product. Even in Gmail it isn’t super easy to form a good overview of your information. Sure you can search, but even then you run into basic questions such as “What is a while ago?, “What words was I using?”, technical questions that Google (or anyone else) would blaze through if the incentives were lined up properly. Let alone questions such as: “What were my mind at in 2009?”

Last year I designed, an app that takes detailed notes for you. So you can remember everything, without frantically taking notes. I based the data design on ideas from Moxie Marlinspike. Having no data to begin with is a good way to improve your security posture. But I was also inspired by the guys behind Hey, a Gmail competitor. We have a weird proposition: We give you value, you give us money. No personal data, no spying and no ads, just money. And I’m very curious if the app is gonna help people get in control of their data, even though I’m well aware that recording conversations feels complicated.

One thing that I learned in this venture is that it is very hard to dodge the Apples, AWS’ses and Microsoft’s Azures of this world when building a scalable app that can compete. And they will immediately tap into your revenue, even though they just might launch a competitor to your service for free. Google Meet subtitles for instance. Please checkout “the Billion Dollar Code” on Netflix, to get a feel for how that economy works.